The Stories We Tell Ourselves


Last night something spooked the little animal by my side. When it happened, I felt her claws tense over the blanket; saw the prick of her ears against the apartment’s softer shadows; knew the sudden silence where her rumbling purr had been. I, too, had heard the unusual sound–some hard thump in a nearby apartment, or maybe in the walls: Nothing, for me, with which to greatly concern myself.

But when the little animal turned the yellows of her eyes in the direction of that sound–searching, waiting, listening for more–all I could do was offer up her name and a reassuring scratch, and wonder, when neither eased the tension beneath her fur, what sense her little mind was making of this thing that had frightened her. In general, what little-animal stories did she have at her disposal to grasp the many uncertainties in her life: the predator-roar of thunder and the vacuum cleaner; the hiss of rain-water under car tires on the streets below; the bark of teenagers waging turf wars outside the shelter across the way?

Leaving Plato’s cave is unlikely for little animals, but an ability to escape that cave comes with its own limitations, which form the lesser-known second half of this allegory in the Republic, before Socrates suggests the steps required to turn a curious mind at twenty into a dialectic mind at thirty, and a leader’s mind at fifty. I’ll never know for certain what made the sound that spooked the little animal, but my guesses in that moment were informed by knowledge not at her disposal–knowledge that made it easy for me to dismiss as harmless what continued to unsettle her. All I could do for her was to convey a sense of calm, and hope it would be enough. For all my ability to reason, I’ll never know what this little animal makes of the strangeness in her world, and accepting this fact means accepting a chasm in close proximity: a chasm that likes to curl up, purring, by my side.

With fellow human beings, the shape of this chasm differs, and perhaps runs deeper: There are so many stories we tell ourselves to explain the unknown, it’s easy to feel bereft of a truly common tongue. Earlier this week, for instance, I discovered that an acquaintance was reading one of her faith’s core texts for the first time, and I have to admit: I was genuinely surprised to discover that she was taking many of its assertions at face value. “So that’s why men have dominion over women–because of a piece of fruit.” “So that’s why this guy has different views on Israeli foreign policy–he’s uncircumcised, and it says right here that the uncircumcised aren’t my people.” Her comments required an adjustment in my understanding of how she engaged with text–and with this adjustment, a reminder that there are many dissenting ways to perceive and interact with the world.

This acquaintance had been struck, too, by so much affirmation that hers is indeed an angry god, and she asked me if this was the major difference between Judaism and Christianity, when “Christ sort of smoothed things over.” Her question gave me pause. Before realizing how seriously she was taking her reading of this text, I’d mentioned how conveniently Deuteronomy was found by the High Priest Hilkiah to justify the horrific purging of pagans under King Josiah–but when this observation was greeted as yet another impressive aspect of the grand “just-so” story of the Tanach, I realized that more care was necessary in what I chose to say about this exploration of her culture.

Consequently, I responded to her question by pointing out that Christ is given (by the anonymous authors of the gospels) to say many strident and violent things in the New Testament (e.g. Matthew 10:34), such that interpretation plays a huge role in both texts, and a reader of faith tends to get out of these texts an amplification of whatever ideology they put in: violence finding violence, peace finding peace. When this approach to interpretation seemed to perplex her, I had to remind myself that I spend my days swimming in critical discourse, so it’s easy to forget that scepticism requires practice. My acquaintance is, after all, by no means unintelligent, but because she is also deeply community-oriented, with little experience in textual analysis, I understand why she might take a text labeled “sacred” by her family and culture at face value, even though to me its mystical histories seem self-evidently inaccurate. I read this text with only a scholar’s interest. She reads in search of a story to explain her world–to explain the strength and the vehemence and the nationalism of her culture–and, for now, at least, she’s found one.

On the other end of the spectrum, I also conversed this week with a fellow nearing the end of a life’s journey dedicated views that differ wildly from mine: a man deeply fascinated by a range of topics that indicate dissenting beliefs on evolution, religion, and the participation of alien races in the formation of human civilizations. He is a person I take great care (for professional reasons) not to engage over his conviction that “evolutionism” is a fraud. Nevertheless, in the course of our most recent interaction, he shared with me two events that changed his life in this regard. As is often the case, they were mundane affairs: first, a high-school acquaintance gave him a book that sparked a train of religious thought with a conspiracist bent; and second, forty years ago he listened to a radio programme that convinced him the woodpecker was proof against evolution. (It’s not.)

Just beneath that surface, though, lay something far more interesting for me. As he spoke, I imagined this fellow as a young man of considerable skill in his chosen profession, with a deep, abiding curiosity about the universe at large, and an unnamed dissatisfaction with what the usual progression of life had on offer. I imagined him giving his high-school friend the benefit of the doubt, and lifting his head from the book with a fresh appreciation for the world around him. I imagined him sitting in his car, listening to that soothing radio programme in the 1970s, with so much subversiveness on such pleasant and attainable offer. How could the grand narratives espoused by an alternative approach to spirituality, and an alternative to mainstream science that flattered his understanding of some elements therein, fail to stir in him a sense of deeper purpose: a quest to carry him through the long, remaining years of mundane life?

Persons with more liberal views are just as susceptible to such appeals to the desire to be part of something greater, which is why the moderately- to well-educated are sometimes the worst offenders for disseminating destructive ideas. Vaccination non-compliance, for instance, is highest among well-educated and affluent persons: in other words, persons who have a significantly stronger safety net to accommodate for the failure of their views about disease, as it plays out in the health outcomes of their families, and who have perhaps become overconfident in their ability to sift through the surfeit of digital information available on any given subject, and thus to make decisions about the science itself that might be better left in expert hands.

Similarly, we are in the midst of an intense conflict over “free speech”, a concept that once embodied the backbone of political resistance; a term now regarded as a four-letter-word in certain activist circles because of its more recent applications. It’s hard to find a leaping-off point that does not suggest fealty to either side of this debate, but The Atlantic‘s “Free Speech is No Diversion” (Nov. 12) perhaps best illuminates how persons of a liberal bent can hold diametrically opposed views in pursuit of a shared progressive goal. Most pieces on this issue champion a more extreme interpretation: that people who defend “free speech” in these contexts are sheltering those with the greatest social power from the consequences of their speech, within institutions that already tend to use corporate preference to set the parameters of acceptable social debate; or conversely, that people who use (non-corporate) economic pressure, social-media outcries, and even physical shows of force in response to systemic micro-aggressions are engaged in “thought-policing” on a level inching us ever closer to the brink of fascism or capital-C Communism.

I don’t mention the latter fears glibly, either. I have read the histories of China’s Cultural Revolution and early Soviet Russia–have wept over Zhou Enlai’s attempts to keep the youthful, revolutionary zeal of the Red Guard from entirely destroying the Chinese economy; have spent nights ruminating over the readiness with which the Russian people embodied the precepts of self-censorship, perpetuated class warfare between the proletariat and the peasants, and generally destroyed one another in fealty to the perceived moral righteousness of statist propaganda. I shudder to think of the same ever happening here, but I also consider part-and-parcel of that kind of extremism the perpetuation of any social narratives that themselves rely upon such a rhetoric of catastrophe, and in so doing imply a) that some immediate (usually quite fear-based, knee-jerk) action is required to turn the tide, and b) that there is ever One True Story standing head-and-shoulders above the rest.

In my time working at a bookstore, I have seen a profound range in the coping mechanisms and mythologies of my fellow human beings. Among the most affecting are the beliefs held by those who suffer from chronic pain, overwhelming grief, or otherwise powerful disappointments, and who adhere to crystal theory, astrology, reiki, books on guardian angels: anything to regain a sense of purpose and perceived control over their environments and bodies. The sneering man would say that such people need to be stripped of their ridiculous notions about the universe for the good of society–They are voting adults, after all! Meanwhile, the feeling, sneering man would say they need to be stripped of such notions for their own good; because their ignorance makes them vulnerable to exploitation by those who promise but cannot deliver genuine reprieve from their difficult circumstances.

I don’t entirely disagree, but there is a fiction at work here, too–a myth that the man who has walked in light (as he perceives it to be) can ever return to his friends in chains in Plato’s cave, and convince them that the figures on the wall before them are merely shadows. What Plato describes through Socrates is not some grand triumph of this contemptuous sort–the freed man shaking off with words alone the shackles he sees in other minds–but rather, a world in which individual unhappiness with this disparate knowledge-base is necessary for the good of the state; a world in which a man would be happier dwelling in the light ever after, but must nevertheless be forced to return to shadow, because “the truth”–as Plato declares it to be through Socrates–“is that the State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst.”

But let us go one terrible further: Let us imagine that, in this cave, there sit many men in shackles, all of whom believe that at one point they left this cave–saw light! saw the truth of their first shadows!–and now lie again in darkness, consigned for the good of the state to be surrounded by others who will never see as they see, and therefore never believe as they believe. In this scenario, it ceases to matter whether any among them actually left the cave; their visions of the outside world would likely stand in competition with one another’s even if they all had. What matters more is that each remains convinced of his singular removal from the cave, and thus privately considers his insight superior to that of all around him. Within this cave therefore sit as many benign dictators as there are prisoners, each varying only in levels of tenderness and contempt for the ignorance of his fellow human beings; each therefore firm, if also reluctant, in the necessity of shepherding the unwitting masses. Now we have a world of storytellers. Now we have our world.

With the little animal who curls up beside me, narration is easy. I convince her of a story’s truth by action alone: in coming home most every day; in keeping her water and food dishes full; by aligning certain sounds with specific actions and objects. With not-so-little animals, it’s easy to think that narration should be not-so-easy: that humans, as “advanced” animals, require alignment on a more overt narratological level to coexist, to support one another, and to pursue any common ends. And yet this is impossible to achieve in full. Even Plato’s Socrates can only gesture at how a man is supposed to lead in darkness, for:

When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the den, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent, because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good.

In this framing, it is enough to perceive for oneself a grander universe; that alone will somehow make the Platonic State a reality. And yet, the man who is returned to this cave cannot expect his fellow prisoners to understand his views, let alone believe in them. How can this grander universe therefore exist anywhere but in his mind’s eye? Subsequently, how can the cave contain anything greater than a body of prisoners, each convinced that utopia exists in his private thoughts alone?

I require no written document to treat the little animal in my care with kindness, but in the world of not-so-little animals, we often regard finding the right terminology and narratives as essential to good social practices. In consequence, using the wrong terminology, the wrong stories, can quickly undermine even our most well-intentioned actions. It is tempting to treat this as a modern phenomenon, but the tribalist impulse threads the long course of human history; we much prefer to have a clear understanding of who is and is not “on our side”. To rise above this impulse is not easy, and will probably never be permanent.

The best we can do, then, is simply to recognize the chasm between the stories we tell ourselves: how wide it runs, how deep. It is a generous instinct that leads us to try to reassure each other when fear of the unknown rises, but when we do, we have to remember that–whatever success we might find in the moment–what we’re ultimately reaching for is an impossible level of control over another’s inner world. Better, sometimes, simply to be present, to dwell together in that terrible cave and exude a level of calm we can only hope will convey all that really matters to the survival of our species. To answer, when someone asks of an unknown sound–did you hear that?–Yes, I did.

To accept that sometimes things just go bump in the night, and that it’s better (not happier, perhaps, but better) to accept not always knowing why–especially when the alternative is to reach for stories that only widen the chasm between us all.

Ten Books Read and Loved in 2015

Year-end lists arrive too late for the biggest spree in our consumerist culture, so although I support public libraries alongside local bookstores, I’m jotting down this year’s reading preferences now, with the buying season in mind.

I’m also going to cheat a bit, because choosing just ten books is too difficult, so in each category I will talk a little bit about surrounding options. And yes, I’m using categories instead of a straight “ten best” list, because it’s incredibly hard to compare so many books from so many contexts. This is not going to be a comprehensive list, but hopefully it offers a few intriguing reads.

1. From the World of Literary Giants

A Stangeness in my Mind, a novel by Orhan Pamuk

Many big-name authors added to their canon this year, and I read quite a few of these books with initial excitement that quickly waned. Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights holds delightful kernels of his earlier work, and pursues a fascinating theme (the fundamental nature of the universe: chaotic or ordered), but unravels both stylistically and argumentatively in the latter half. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant similarly wobbled, precisely because I found it too conscious of its genre to carry my interest in the story to the end, and I did not read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchmanwill not, because I so detested the way it was presented as a distinct novel instead of an earlier draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Oddly enough, Orhan Pamuk‘s latest worked in the reverse: Despite not resonating with the book’s opening gambit (an attempt to establish reader sympathy by introducing a male protagonist tricked into marrying the “ugly” sister), I fell in love with the heart of the novel to follow: a story as much about the modern history of Istanbul–its politics, its peoples, its shifting, remembering landscapes–as about one street vendor who remains fairly stationary amid so much change, and manifests a deep, existential wonder at all he sees within and without his life. Although this book toys with traditional narrative voice and structure, I found something very old, almost akin to the work of Tolstoy, in the style of the prose, the function of the imagery, and the questions posed in A Strangeness in My Mind. Having already won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Pamuk seems quite comfortable developing the power of his storytelling for its own (and his readers’) sake.

2. (Auto)Biography/Memoir


I can’t recall a year in which I’ve read more (auto)biographies than this one. For some reason, I tend to find personal and critical revisionism of individual lives more tedious than enlightening. Nonetheless, I enjoyed with no small sadness Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life, reflected warmly on this blog about Meghan Daum’s Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, took comfort in Ellen Forney’s “graphic memoir”, Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michaelangelo, and Me, and read with great fascination Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion–but Girl in a Band was a book I did not expect to read, let alone enjoy. I never really clicked with the music of Sonic Youth, but when I kept coming across book reviews frustrated by Kim Gordon‘s refusal to play to more traditional expectations for female autobiography, I was intrigued–and then rewarded for my stab in the dark with a surprisingly entertaining immersion into a sometimes-alien, but always well-commanded world of personal anecdote, industry insight, and artistic wherewithal. I might have to try listening to Sonic Youth again.

3. War & Peace


When I start describing Terry Gould‘s book, which came out late 2014 in hardcover and is maddeningly postponed until 2016 for paperback, I’m often interrupted with one of two objections: “The title and cover make it look like a pretty war-mongering and nationalistic text, don’t you think?” and, “Police forces? Aren’t they the incompetents who made it impossible for soldiers to succeed in Iraq and Afghanistan?” The book addresses both concerns almost at the outset, when Gould, a seasoned journalist-embed, first turns from covering soldiers to covering the RCMP who train local police forces around the world after massive disasters and during wars. Although Gould initially wants to put all manner of nationalistic acclaim on the role of the RCMP trainers, the RCMP trainers themselves won’t allow it. Time and again in this vivid account of various police-training missions, the text redirects attention to the bravery, sacrifice, and devastating mantles taken up by local peoples the world over–against corruption, while lacking proper resources, and despite the extreme likelihood of death in the line of duty. What emerges is no pat-on-the-back for Canadian aid on the world stage, but a profound insight through Canadian eyes, into the challenges most often overlooked in debates about building stable states. If Canadians want to reclaim a reputation as a “peace-keeping” nation, Worth Dying For is definitely the text to read.

4. Hard Sci-Fi


There has been such a joyous range of scifi this year–from Neal Stephenson’s highly technical Seveneves, to the near-future resource crunch in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, to the anthropological scifi/space-opera of Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti (from the first batch of’s new novella line)–and yet this is a tough category for me to comment on, because the vast majority of my reading in 2015 has involved scifi in shorter fiction forms. Nevertheless, Kim Stanley Robinson has always been a favourite for his ability to humanize and revivify even the most well-worn genre tropes, so it’s no surprise that the stand-out novel-length work for me this year is his. Although I was sceptical about anyone’s ability to say anything new with a generation-ship story, Aurora comments on quite a few scifi discourses, all while maintaining a surprising level of focus on individual human relationships. On whole, this hefty volume offers a fine balance of pleasant plot surprises, important ideological questions, thoughtful world-building, and altogether evocative prose.

5. 2015 Award-Winner


A Brief History of Seven Killings was my first book of the year, and although I agree with reviews that said it might have stood to be a third shorter, the quality of the prose itself was certainly not at fault. This is a difficult book to read, and not just because Marlon James switches between a variety of distinct voices and dialects to tell his story of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley’s life. Rather, the intensity and range of violence embodied and endured by almost all of the characters, both living and dead, is a heavy experience: an experience to take in beats and breaths. There are absolutely lighter award-winners this year; André Alexis’ Fifteen Dogs, for instance, is the correct choice for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize: pleasant and fun and easy to share with your whole family. However, there is an urgency and a vitality and a deeper, more complex humanity to the Man Booker Prize-winning piece. Eleven months after closing the covers, I’m still haunted by James’ story and his prose.

6. Children’s/YA Lit

I don’t read much in this demographic sphere, but this year I’ve made a concerted effort to have works I can recommend to librarians and teachers who frequent the bookstore where I work part-time. To this end, I’ve held up Magonia as a YA fantasy that offers stylistic complexity while dealing with important adolescent themes, The Scorpion Rules as a wildly promising series-opener that offers literary reprieve for young adults frustrated by the inefficacy of today’s global powers, and Lizard Radio as a delight of a nuanced science-fantasy that, for the first two-thirds, does an excellent job challenging a cultural preference for clean binaries in gender, sexuality, and social roles. This is possibly the best book about gender fluidity that I’ve read from the youth market, and the only reason it isn’t my top choice is because it does buckle in the final third in the way of a lot of YA fiction, by descending into an action-packed set of all-too-convenient plot points to reach its conclusion. More consistently satisfying was The Wrath and the Dawn, which invokes a delicate balance between the horrors of the world and its wonders in a retelling of One Thousand and One Nights. Renée Ahdieh could not have chosen a more empowering literary entry-point for a generation of teenagers confronted with real-world horrors like ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Syrian civil war, and this book gets serious points for its presentation of conflicting motivations in individual human beings.

7. Men’s Fiction


The name of this category might be a bit tongue-in-cheek, but only a bit. I read as many short-story collections as I could this year, and one strong theme seemed to be works about men in crisis, on the verge of internal or external collapse. Some of these collections were much richer than others: Daddy Lenin and Other Stories offers a fairly uniform vision of masculinity–but in enough contextual variations to make the volume enjoyable throughout–and In Another Country presents a splendidly dream-like set of stories that verge upon (without ever fully descending into) fantasy or magical realism. Weaker works included England and Other Stories, which offers a possibly-too-slow thematic build through small moments in modest lives, and Confidence, which was praised for the awfulness of its protagonists, but read to me more as an unintentional caricature of the use of alcohol and enigmatic women as props for self-destruction. Within this landscape of uneven executions, I found a stylistic haven in Debris. Its taut, lean, yet still vivid prose makes the familiar strange in a way that invites readers to revisit expectations about every character in each story–their motivations, their breaking points, their relationships. Kevin Hardcastle has a patient, distanced approach to his writing that quickly becomes immersive, and is best enjoyed with a beer or dram of whisky.

8. Classic Reprint


Now he felt he should have known all along that he was nothing. Boxers were men in other towns, in big cities far from this car parked in the darkness alongside the highway between fields of vegetables. Resting his cheek against the cold window, he thought of killing himself, but years ago, standing beside his father’s legs in a crowd on a night sidewalk, he had seen a dead man profiled in a puddle of blood, his eye dumfounded, and Wes knew that if he was going to be killed he was not going to do it himself.

Last year, when I finished John Williams’ Stoner (another NYRB text, and one that grew wildly popular in 2013), my first instinct was to pick it up again and start over. I didn’t think I’d feel that way about another work so soon, but Leonard Gardner‘s book about boxers–Leonard Gardner’s only book, first published in 1969–has a control and majesty in its treatment of small moments (fragile city-life, down-and-out, lost-human-being moments) that makes its place in the hearts of so many writers a foregone conclusion. I will reread Fat City. I will try not to spend the rest of my life chasing its perfect prose.

9. Graphic Novel / Comic Book


There have been a lot of smart comics this year, ranging from the levity and superhero wisdom of Ms. Marvel Vol 2: Generation Why, to the warmth and quirkiness of Lumberjanes, to the meditative, far-flung scifi of Descender, Vol. I: Tin Stars, to the poignant graphic memoir, The Arab of the Future. Nevertheless, the fifth volume in Saga is a delight because it maintains the series’ strong run of excellent world-building, which is no small feat after readers have already spent so much time within its space-operatic world. Writer Brian K. Vaughan and illustrator Fiona Staples again construct a collection of vivid, exciting episodes that advance a powerfully resonant set of sociopolitical themes while also being firmly, devotedly about the relationships between mother, father, and child. Eventually there will come a lacklustre addition to the series, but not this year! Not yet!

10. Comfort Read


How the hell can a book about mass extinction be a comfort read, you ask? You’d be better off asking Elizabeth Kolbert how she managed to write a piece that introduces so much information about the ongoing extinction of species, both as it’s being observed today and in contrast to various theories and histories of extinction, with so much kindness and even humour. The Sixth Extinction puts aside the harsh, accusatory language of so many treatises on global warming, and instead offers the historical and cultural context needed to face our likeliest legacy as a united front: as just one more fragile link in the natural chain; as a species that even now remains filled with wonder and questions about the world we share, and the environmental web we’re watching die off or transform.

In the same vein, other reassuring reads (for me) included two released last fall that I’ve only been able to get to recently: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, a book that treats end-of-life and quality-of-life care with so much common-sense compassion that I’m left feeling hopeful about improvements in our medical practice; and Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, which looks at gross miscarriages of justice in the American legal system and illustrates the kind of work that can be and is being done to reclaim lives and achieve reforms.

Okay, so maybe I do have an odd definition of “comfort reading”, and your mileage may vary, but this is my list! So it goes.

What did you read and enjoy most in 2015?

A Scattered Addition to a Classic Film Franchise

I’ve been remiss in posting film reviews as of late, but not remiss in watching modern films. After viewing Sicario and The Martian almost back-to-back, I found it difficult to write a piece that would do adequate justice to the whiplash of so much splendidly orchestrated existential nihilism followed by so much pleasantly orchestrated existential humanism. I have fewer qualms writing on Spectre, the latest effort in the Bond franchise, if only because it was a much more uneven effort–and in its unevenness, kept provoking the writer in me.

Before I begin, I should mention that I was amply primed for this film by the work of two doctoral colleagues and their brother, who collectively re-watched all the 007 films this summer, and reviewed each piece on 3BrothersFilm. I am partial to Anders’ reviews because of the range of analytical contexts he brings to his analyses, but each brother has his own strengths; Anton’s reviews appeal to my interest in the success of various narrative strategies, and Aren has a celebratory eye for visual storytelling that treats action sequences with the joy and nuance they deserve. Collectively, they offered a primer on Bond that helped me identify an extensive number of franchise-specific motifs in Sam Mendes’ latest venture.

That Bond is a franchise certainly offers one context through which to evaluate the film, but while watching Spectre, I also kept thinking about Bond’s competition. Not only has this been a boom year for spy films, but the covert-ops/government-surveillance themes that suffuse this film’s plot have also cropped up in a range of other mainstream movies. Thus, when we discover in Spectre that the future of the “Double-O” program lies in question, terrorist attacks have been used to manipulate the world government, and the British government has likely been infiltrated by criminal elements, how could I not compare Spectre to Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, where the Impossible Missions Force is disbanded, terrorist attacks are used to manipulate the world government, and the British government has been compromised? Similarly, when a major Spectre plot-line involves the establishment of a global surveillance system for the greater protection of all citizens (but with an ulterior motive, obviously), how can an engaged movie-goer not contrast this film with last year’s Captain America: Winter Soldier, which also involved the establishment of a questionable global defense system?

This wealth of recent filmic comparisons strains the viewing of a movie that attempts to make many analogies and arguments in its 148-minute run-time. At Spectre’s heart beats one especially strong theme: the value of individuals making life-or-death decisions in matters of national security on a face-to-face level. Here Spectre is at its most fascinating, inasmuch as early spy films had to grapple with the audacity of lone agents operating at a significant remove from traditional forms of societal oversight; now, in the age of drone warfare, director Sam Mendes seems to imply that the assassin class shares the “dignity” of pre-WWI combatants, inasmuch as the myth goes that, in the good ol’ days, a man could still murder another man with some measure of decency and choice, all while looking him straight in the eye. The historical uncanniness (and revisionism) of this lament–that technology is taking all the gentlemanliness out of international espionage–is where this Bond film’s thematic landscape thrives.

Less successful in Spectre are the surrounding analogies and arguments, including one component of this whole crisis over a global surveillance system. I won’t spoil the film for readers, but I will say that Mendes deflates a great deal of his strongest theme by diminishing a lifetime’s effort at world domination to a truly bizarre and petty kernel of villainous backstory. Other possibly intriguing threads are similarly smothered in the execution, including a red herring involving Bond’s past, the underwhelming reveal of our principal villain, the halfhearted reveal of another villain from the actor’s well-known past role, and the haphazard way in which work-or-woman is presented as Bond’s ultimate inner crisis. I certainly had the impression that Mendes was trying to tie a whole body of 007 discourse into one film asking questions about the continuing relevance of Bond himself in our day and age, but the rise and fall of so many scattered ideas had the effect of dulling my experience entirely. Nor was I alone in feeling worn out by the experience; one person in my cinema actively moaned and cried out “too long!” to a couple approving sounds elsewhere in the room.

This isn’t to say, of course, that there weren’t clear highlights to Spectre. The opening scene, for instance, was easily the most artfully choreographed in the film, from its lush Day-of-the-Dead costuming and set design, to the immense nuance of its visual storytelling, to a gripping aerial tracking shot of Bond casually strolling along precarious rooftops, to some clever jump cuts and narrative reversals that promised a film filled with unexpected twists and turns. From that opening, though, we cut to a bizarre credits sequence that deflates a lot of the urgency and gravitas of the previous scene. Yes, “Spectre” is a criminal organization with an octopus as its insignia, but there’s almost no way to engulf sensuous female forms in tentacles without invoking–well, you know. The Bond franchise is known for some especially hokey opening numbers, but this marriage between the lyrics of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall” and visual interpretation felt both too overt and, at the same time, scattered: teetering at many junctures between attempts at genuine comedy and caricature. The film that follows continues to produce scenes that, in their homage to earlier Bond films, seem to make too many sacrifices to a more goofball, haphazard period in Bond franchise history.

Does Bond still work as a vehicle for the serious questions it poses? I’m still wrestling for an answer. Because of how the global surveillance arc plays out, I’m tempted to suggest that the Marvel and M:I franchises might be better positioned to adapt to the cultural concerns of the modern mainstream landscape–but maybe I’m also putting too much stock into one Bond film that felt a little tired, a little safe, a little dull.

Speaking of dull, though, I don’t think I’ve ever been so bored in the presence of pretty Bond girls. It certainly didn’t help that Bond seems to be making love to the mirror more than to the stunning Monica Bellucci, despite the claim he makes that the husband of the woman she plays in Spectre must have been a fool not to pay more attention to her. (Another attempt at off-kilter humour, by making our classic ladies’ man a bit of a rogue? I couldn’t tell.) But even the later romancing of lead-lady Madelein Swann, in which her initial contempt of Bond is succeeded by a desperate, overwhelming love in a matter of days, felt mechanical right through to what was supposed to feel like a triumph of an amorous encounter.

Granted, the treatment of women in this film was mostly typical of Bond films, with Moneypenny far and away proving the most modern of the film’s representations–but at the same time, it wasn’t at all typical, because Mendes actually managed to *reduce* Judi Dench’s M (from Skyfall) to little more than one more woman Bond has “lost”, and whose narrative arc is entirely in service of his ongoing psychological torture. A fantastically old-school Bond brawl on a train also seemed to be making the argument against Bond, the character, ever being played by a woman–which, okay, is fine by me, except that this restriction to the franchise only exacerbates the existing limits to female archetypes in Bond films. If no woman is ever going to grow into a Bond, can she at least grow to be something on par with the leading woman in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, a secret agent whose death threats aren’t simply humoured tenderly by our leading man? And if she can’t–if the Bond franchise simply cannot sustain growth in this regard without losing its core aesthetics–then where will its growth emerge?

Watching Spectre, I was reminded that there are really two kinds of narrative franchises: the ones that trade on familiarity and reliability as ends unto themselves, and the stories that reliably establish the familiar solely to escape it. If I’m disappointed in Spectre, it’s really because I still can’t decide which Sam Mendes was trying for. A lot of the narrative and directorial promises in the opening scene seemed to involve doing the unexpected with familiar constructs, but the film that follows all too often settles into a lot of old–maybe too old–Bond tropes. I can only hope the next one is better at picking a side.

Writing Reflections: Story Up, Stories Out, Stories On Their Way

I don’t often re-read my stories once they’ve been published, but my most recent publication, “The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song” (GigaNotoSaurus), has been an exception. Just as children re-enact scenarios over and over while trying to process their implications, something kept nagging at me the more I thought about this story, about a jaded AI who investigates the murder of 23 monks in a community that believes the universe’s existence is maintained by sacred song. I would re-read the piece, then think about my forthcoming novelette in Analog (“Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan”), then think about a novella presently in queue at, then stare at the notes for my work-in-progress, a novel(la) currently titled “To Make a Circle in the Sky.” Then I’d start the cycle anew.

Yesterday, the puzzle’s solution clicked. These four stories, all arising in the space of a year, share what I can only classify as a “purpose-driven anger”–my anger, my frustration with certain cultural narratives and contemporary histories, and my dissatisfaction with the ways currently on offer to escape them. “The Stars, Their Faces Uplifted in Song” addresses the failure of dramatic class-based revolution in an isolated culture, and offers only the slenderest hope of change in the form of future cultural diversification; “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan” looks at what a person owes the culture of their origin, and to what extent individuals can ever be read outside their cultural context; “A Banquet in Anxiety” offers a near-future first-contact scenario as viewed by persons (mostly) marginalized at the negotiation table, and in the Terran/Martian economy at large. The novel-in-progress similarly champions those with the least say in our current world, and asks two questions: “How does a monolithic culture form from the fragments of past tribes?” and “What would happen if the people we neglect the most, the refugees of disaster and war and violent persecution, were our first ambassadors to the stars?”

Earlier this week, after listening to C. L. Moore read from her classic space fantasy, Shambleau (1933), I’d engaged in the fun internet game of wandering through hidden references and motifs in the works of classic SF&F authors. For instance, Heinlein famously lifts the title of one short story, “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947), from a song Moore’s protagonist hums in “Shambleau” and one other story. The song and Heinlein’s poet, Rhysling, also appear in other works by Heinlein: Farmer in the Sky (1950), Time Enough for Love (1973), and “Universe” (1941, but better known as half of Orphans of the Sky [1963]). I’m routinely fascinated by how these little Easter eggs find their way into an author’s work; how, over time, an author’s inner world naturally finds links–patterns, plot devices, character archetypes, or whole memory palaces–between seemingly disparate narrative contexts. I suppose in some way that’s the dream, though: to hit upon a “physics engine” that can sustain a whole universe of stories. And I suppose what I’m trying to say, then, is that I might just have figured out the overarching coherence in my own.

Honestly, this suspicion comes as a bit of a surprise for me. In my growth as a writer, I have often felt that “arriving” would mean “finding my voice”–but until this week, I tended to think of that voice solely on stylistic grounds. However, such a definition has been profoundly frustrating for me, because I strongly believe that form must follow function, and as such, I try damned hard, whether writing scifi or mystery or mainstream fiction, to adapt my vocabulary, syntax, pacing, and narrative voice to the needs of the specific story. How, then, can an overarching “voice” appear?

As I also just realized this past week, all the stories in my general fiction manuscript (to be submitted the moment I publish even a single story therein) have binding threads as well. The most surprising of these–discovered when reflecting on how much literature plays a role in my submitted novella–was the realization that, without overtly planning it this way, I had slipped a major literary reference into every single piece. These stories are organized over the chronology of life, from an opening piece about a small child to a closing piece about the legacy of a recently-deceased man, and most are quite plainly about persons in positions of extreme vulnerability, whether those positions were created by themselves or by circumstances beyond their control.

The literary references are usually quite subtle, little more than a background wash that needn’t be recognized in order to “get” any part of the story itself. However, the balance between the two–the expansive idealism of literature and the tendency of real life towards smaller, more private notions of survival and success–speaks to another frustration on my part: what different people do with the impossibility of ever truly knowing another human being or being known by them. Some people use this fundamental isolation as an excuse to distance themselves from the world, while others take that isolation as a challenge, and seek out as much meaning and connection as they can. But how can these competing approaches coexist? And what happens when a person who desires meaning is guided by a person who does not?

Obviously, there are differences between the themes I explore in science fiction and general fiction–which is, quite simply, the reason I do write in both forms instead of one. Nonetheless, this week I have had the tremendous privilege of being able to recognize all the resonance points within my most recent work, and from those resonance points come to the surprising conclusion that, without even realizing it, a strong sense of purpose has arisen in my writing. I have been trying for a very long time to find the right stories through which to channel my frustrations, my sorrows, and my hopes for the narrative underpinnings of our shared universe–and for the first time since I gave myself permission to be mediocre in my writing (so long as not-being-perfect also gave me permission to persevere), I think I might just have found them.

Only time and a lot more hard work, though, will tell.

To that end: best wishes and happy, meaningful writing to you all.

Alien (1979): Storytelling Lessons from a Perfect Film


Some people cry at the end of romances or mainstream dramas. I got teary-eyed last night at the end of Alien, because even after watching the film countless times as a child–even after watching it now, as an adult with a writer’s clinical eye for storytelling–I still felt palpably afraid for Ripley in the final third, and her final repose in that stasis chamber came as catharsis for us both.

Barring a few rough cuts, the likes of which today’s digital production processes have made rare or solely the result of lazy editing, Alien is a perfect movie. Dan O’Bannon’s screenplay is lean and wise, building distinct characters and fostering worn-in relationships without over-narrating his story’s emotional mechanics. Such emotional pulls, after all, only achieve true life in the hands of a director who will infuse images with character all their own–and if Ridley Scott does one thing fairly consistently, it’s to create memorable visual moments. Between the two of them (and the rest of the production team, including the inestimable H. R. Giger), what emerges is a piece that knows its genres very well; and knows, at the same time, that there are no genre distinctions at the heart of a truly human story.

Rewatching Alien as a writer, I was first struck by the opening scene: a wake-up scene, something overused in fiction, and yet applied to such great effect here. Our first character is, after all, our setting: the commercial ship Nostromo, and a command system later referred to as “Mother”. Scott does more than introduce us to the lay of the land in his opening shots; he also inscribes in his cinematographic style all the major “rules” for the film to follow–rules that Scott never breaks from, such that even when camera angle varies, we can trust that we’re still receiving all our intel from the same, “reliable” narrator.

One of the best of these rules, especially for the calibre of horror film it promises and delivers, involves Scott’s first use of the cutaway. The Nostromo has just received what we will later learn are altered mission directives, but our focus during this curious burst of activity in an otherwise slumbering ship is on a helmet playfully propped opposite the computer screen, as a kind of literalized autopilot; upon its glass we see the reflection of command lines prompting a series of events that include the early awakening of the crew.

This technique, along with Scott’s straight cuts between different action sequences, arises almost every time a major event happens in Alien: from the sharp cut back to the shuttle the moment a face-hugger sears through Kane’s helmet, to our cutaway to Jones while the orange tabby watches a crew-mate bite the dust; to our alternating focus on Lambert and Parker while each stares in horror at the alien between them. All throughout the film, Scott demonstrates a clear understanding that the monster is not the site of our greatest horror; our greatest horror arises from what lurks out the corner of our eyes, and the fears we can read in others’. Nothing is more terrifying than the unrealized potential of a situation to be scary.

With directorial control comes, of course, deception–as we see once Ash’s android nature is revealed, to say nothing of his loyalty to an even more cold-blooded organism: “The Company”, which considers the Nostromo’s crew expendable so long as the recovered alien specimen survives. How are we supposed to align Ash’s robotic nature with all the character’s brooding moments in prior scenes? Were we being tricked by our director when Ash performed such humanlike behaviours even when he didn’t have the rest of the crew for an audience?

To answer these questions, I should mention that, for me, the joy of watching a well-made movie is knowing that we’re being deceived in some way, but not being able to pin down exactly how. I love being lulled into a sense of trust in my narrator, then having that narrator take me to unexpected, even misleading places without breaking any of the promises established in those first few minutes of world-building. It’s a bit like watching a magic act: The magician calls your attention to certain details of his performance, and is perfectly honest about all components therein–but his honesty is itself a deception, meant to direct your focus away from the heart of the trick–all done, of course, for your ultimate surprise and delight.

That last element is especially vital to a good film, but many directors fixate on deception as an end unto itself, by changing the rules of their universe–both on a narrative and a visual level–whenever they feel that doing so might startle their audiences. For this reason we often get excessive uses of dead space in long shots, or late-film shifts to different POV shots, in the most critical moments of modern horror films. In resorting to such cheap tricks, directors demonstrate that they have wholly missed the point; they fail to grasp that the core of human terror is always an internal, not external force.

To this end, the deception in Scott’s cinematography, bolstered by O’Bannon’s screenwriting, does not at all hinge on the reveal of Ash’s true nature, but on what the humanness of both Ash and Captain Dallas–the two members of the crew who have access to the ship’s new directives, and who seem to uphold them, each in his own way–says about the “real” danger aboard ship. The film never gives us closure, for instance, on Dallas’s level of complicity in the horrible events that ensue; although he certainly does not want to die, and acts bravely once one of his crew is dragged off by the alien, he tells Ripley that doing what “The Company” wants is the only rule he lives by, and he doesn’t seem to give a damn about very reasonable quarantine protocols when carting his face-hugged colleague into the ship.

Certainly, more screen-time is given to Ash’s betrayal of science-officer directives, and his general untrustworthiness as the film unfolds. However, if anything, once we realize that Ash is an android, Alien could have easily turned Ash into a computing unit in the style of HAL-9000, compelled by the logic of its competing directives to betray the well-being of its crew. Instead, O’Bannon and Scott take a more nuanced tack–one amply established by all the prior shots in which we see Ash looking preoccupied, agitated, or annoyed by Ripley’s attempts to protect the crew. As we later discover, Ash admires the alien as a “perfect organism … unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” Ash’s last gesture is cruel and smug, but in these words there is something even more frightening: the idea that his resentment comes from his own conscience, and a profound detestation of the human parts of himself that complicate the cold efficiency of his underlying code. Did Ash betray the crew because, as an AI, he was programmed to follow company directives? Or did he betray the crew–even just in part–out of spite for his humanity? Alien never tells.

Indeed, on many narrative levels, Alien seems to delight in disrupting our expectations. Whether by having the crew go to such lengths to catch an orange tabby despite his often surly ways, or by splitting up the crew to play on our expectation that the lone crew-mate is always in greater peril, or by sending a colleague’s body into the void with no final words on offer, this film emphasizes a cool indifference to the kind of schlocky plays on our heart-strings that prove the bread-and-butter of many other films, horror and general alike. O’Bannon doesn’t need you to fall in love with his characters through elaborate backstory; he just needs you to find them human, and become invested in their survival for the reason of their humanity alone.

Alien‘s excellence as scifi similarly arises from this prioritization of the human, not the monster. To this end, we’re given clear signs of the fragility of life in outer space long before an alien goes on a killing spree: from the vulnerability of the stasis room, to an early, precarious shuttle landing, to the hostile planetary conditions confronting the away-party before it finds the alien ship. These thematic anxieties amply shape the emotional surge in Scott’s final third, when Ripley finds herself the last living human in a hellscape of a ship, the lighting and sounds and actions of which have become just as disorienting and life-threatening as the monster that still lurks within it.

Here, too, is where Sigourney Weaver truly comes alive in her role as Ripley. In early banter with her crew-mates, she volleys the occasional harsh word, but from a softer, more playful, less authoritative stance; and as the situation worsens, she tries to express her concerns firmly and professionally, but also tactfully, in private. When Dallas dies she has to shout to gain control of a panicked crew, and as such, takes a while to register when Parker’s decided to listen to what she has to say. But once Lambert and Parker are dead, Ripley doesn’t suddenly become a hardened bad-ass: quite the opposite. Her body now one big, raw nerve, and heavily perspiring as survival becomes as important to her as it is to the alien life form, Ripley, in her final dash to the shuttle, is all emotion, all desperation in the face of death. My fear for her then had nothing to do with the narrative–I knew how it all played out, after all–but in that moment Scott and Weaver made it possible for me to forget what I knew, and just feel the immediacy of Ripley’s fear, of her lack of knowledge that she would, in fact, survive.

In rewatching Alien, I can’t help but draw lessons for my own storytelling. On offer is not just a joy of scifi-horror flick but also a lesson in the importance of knowing what is truly at stake in any story about human beings. To this end, Scott’s direction yields a patient, controlled, visually affecting film that treats its setting–a remote ship in which seven humanoids and one feline struggle to survive–as a character unto itself, a microcosm that comes to embody every capacity of the universe to be both hostile and indifferent to human thriving. But it is only in tandem with O’Bannon’s screenwriting (and Giger’s artistry) that this film becomes something truly special: a story that treats human beings as the first line of opposition to their own survival. By resisting stock characters, and generally favouring indirect or ambivalent approaches to visual storytelling, Alien reminds us that, in order to explore the unknown, we needn’t venture into the farthest reaches of outer space. We need only look within.

Thoughts in the Middle of the Night and a Quandary

In one of my favourite films, a husk of a man emerges from the desert and is gradually reconnected with his brother, his son, and a sense of purpose only revealed to viewers in a wrenching final monologue. Paris, Texas is an act of endurance–not just because of its pacing and length, but because it asks for emotional investment in a protagonist we know nothing about: a person whose only relevant features at the outset, and well throughout the body of the film, are his humanity and his fragility. If we had known at the start what is revealed to us at the end, our view of Travis Henderson would have been cloaked in judgments based on the specifics of his actions; instead, viewers have the opportunity to experience Travis as another victim of the past, whatever that past might have been.

In his final speech, Travis holds this past at a distance, as if it had been occupied by two very different people from the man and woman available to viewers. And of course these are different people, these older on-screen enigmas. Of course they are. But how any of us moves between the many selves in our singular lives–how any of us changes and still relates to preceding versions of ourselves–is a question most cultural narratives struggle just to confront, let alone resolve. Whether we’re interrogating the consistency of a public figure’s stated beliefs and actions, or negotiating a balance between punitive and rehabilitative justice, or deliberating between biological determinism and individual socialization in various identity discourses, or reaching for a vocabulary of mental illness that still allows for some measure of personal responsibility, we in the West tend to struggle with the conceit of a coherent self, and the myriad instances in which that coherent self breaks down.

For me, this struggle arises most acutely in relation to goodness, or more broadly, the pursuit of ethical conduct. It feels odd even to put those words down, because the pursuit and the reality have often veered wildly from one another, and that rift has caused me immense pain on many occasions. I know I’m not alone with this kind of turmoil; I know many others struggle with similar rifts, and find different ways to alleviate their weight. In particular, I remember one friendly discussion with a recently born-again Christian who was so excited to be able to lay down the burden of his imperfections at the foot of the cross, and to dedicate the rest of his life to the glory of his redeemer. How clearly I understood his relief, even though his proposed cure was of absolutely no value to me, an atheist who wouldn’t accept vicarious redemption as ethically sound even if compelling evidence for a creator-god appeared.

I was glad, too, for this friend having found a way that worked for him to alleviate his existential pain. Secular equivalents, after all, can just as easily mislead or disappoint on ethical grounds. There is a poem by Mary Oliver, for instance, that I can recite at will–and often do, even though (or perhaps because) its opening lines run so temptingly counter to Travis’s path in Paris, Texas. As Oliver promises us in “Wild Geese”:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in a clean blue sky
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world opens itself to your imagination
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

This is a philosophy I find as lovely as it is too easy: forgiveness for past missteps through an understanding of our respective smallness in so alive and exciting a world; the indifference of the cosmos as an invitation for personal erasure and renewal. But can inner peace really be as simple as this escapist fantasy suggests? Are the wild geese our only judges in such affairs?

Meanwhile, Iris Murdoch’s novels have always struck a chord with me because of her fascination with ethical entanglements, and the ways in which human beings are inevitably beholden to other human beings when trying to work their way through them (excepting, of course, for when indiscriminate acts of nature occasionally bring an abrupt end to all our best efforts at self-improvement). Years back, in one of her slighter novels, I found a passage I still return to when trying to account for aspects of my behaviour that baffle me. How could I have gone from such a strong inner mandate to contradictory actions in a matter of minutes? Where was my image of an unwaveringly ethical self to helm the ship when I needed it the most?

In The Nice and the Good, a spurned mistress hunts down her former lover at his cottage, but instead encounters–and sleeps with–a much older man unrelated to the family, which remains blissfully unaware of her existence or intrusion. After her roll in the sheets, the younger woman, staggered by the range of actions she’s pursued out of a deceptively simple feeling of rejection, receives the following counsel:

“Human frailty forms a system, Jessica, and faults in the past have their endlessly spreading network of results. We are not good people, Jessica, and we shall always be involved in that great network, you and I. All we can do is constantly to notice when we begin to act badly, to check ourselves, to go back, to coax our weakness and inspire our strength, to call upon the names of virtues of which we know perhaps only the names. We are not good people, and the best we can hope for is to be gentle, to forgive each other and to forgive the past, to be forgiven ourselves and to accept this forgiveness, and to return again to the beautiful unexpected strangeness of the world.”

Oliver and Murdoch share a belief in the power of wonder (with nature, with existence itself) to settle a troubled conscience, but their works thus differ in regard to its application. For Murdoch, there is no escaping into nature to lighten the heart, and this seems a more reasonable (if also less comforting) conclusion. Although I routinely grouse about wanting to live in a cabin in the woods, far from all but someone who’ll occasionally bring whisky around, I want too much to know that the people I care about are well, and not hindered by any of my past actions. Accountability, to the best of anyone’s ability to be accountable, is an annoyingly central facet of my pursuit of an ethical life.

Accountability is also the most difficult facet of this pursuit, because sometimes healing through direct action is impossible. Sometimes the best thing to do–the kindest, and the most ethical–is to walk away; to cease attempting to be understood and forgiven; to accept that you are not the appropriate party to help going forward. I struggle with this concept often, both because being the agent of restitution (either for my own actions or another’s) tempts the ego something fierce, and because walking away is often desirable for much more cowardly reasons. Simply sitting with an ethical quandary, an “endlessly spreading network of results” beyond my full comprehension (let alone control) is an agonizing act for me, and one that often feels the same as resigning myself to an inferior ethical outcome.

There is a recent provenance for all this brooding. Two, actually, but one cannot be discussed on these pages. The other is more pleasant anyway: Sunday afternoon found me shivering on my apartment balcony, watching seagulls dip and glide above autumnal leaves while I answered interview questions over a patchy phone connection for an author profile that had worried me all week. In the course of the conversation, my interviewer and I discussed how writing offers an opportunity to negotiate personal feeling in ways that life itself rarely matches. We both admitted to having secret histories behind some of our published stories, although I didn’t mention any specific histories for mine, and we both seemed to pride ourselves on contriving entirely distinct literary situations in which our private meanings could find outlets of potential significance to others, too.

After the interview, though, I was reminded that my most recent sale to Analog, “Seven Ways of Looking at the Sun-Worshippers of Yul-Katan,” has a fairly overt thematic dilemma: the question of cowardice, which haunts the protagonist as they struggle with what they do and do not owe (personally and culturally) to a situation thrust upon them. I wrote that novelette with a lot of anger towards myself, but also while working towards a place of greater compassion and accountability. I don’t imagine it will be the last story in which I wrestle, not with “how to be a good person”, but with what it means to be a human being who wants to be good, and falls short. Who wants to be good, that is, but has no access to a desert through which to confront and be stripped of all her past selves, and then become more fully accountable for those past selves from a safe remove. I do wonder, though, just how future iterations of this theme will play out for me.

My first significant attempt to narrate my way out of the past was probably the first day of grade five: standing at the front of a school bus full of the previous year’s bullies, apologizing for being so much a mess of a person as to have plainly earned their mockery and abuse, and promising to do better–to be better–going forward. I try to remember this incident, and a series of subsequent self-degradations, as a lesson in pursuing the wrong sort of goodness: goodness in the eyes of others; goodness as a metric of social fitness and popularity. Twenty years on, I think I have a better starting point in simply wanting to minimize the harm I do, and to avoid rationalizing (from a place of self-interest, complacency, or all-out resignation to the recapitulation of past mistakes) actions that could be to the detriment of others. But the extremism attached to this desire hasn’t changed much in all that time, and neither has my ability to be good, at least as much as I would prefer. And that’s a little exhausting.

So where to next? In asking myself this, my thoughts keep drifting to a 33,000-word novella I wrote earlier this year, and which is waiting in the only queue for works its size. By the looks of things, it’s at least passed a first reading, which is no promise of acceptance, but definitely an indication that completing a longer project will be a useful next step. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect story to fit so many words, but if my time as a published writer has taught me anything thus far, it’s that there is value on more than a therapeutic level to me writing the stories that attend best to what I struggle with the most.

So to hell, I suppose, with “Write what you know”, or even “Write what you don’t know.” For me right now, it’s simply, “Write what haunts you.” Write what keeps you up at night before your longest working weekday, turning over quandaries you can’t fully name, let alone hope to address, for fear of making everything worse out of the deceptively simple desire to do good.

Granted, I may not be the best writer I can be, but neither am I the best human being I can be. Still, in wanting to become both–in learning to sit quietly with both pursuits, as uncomfortable as the rift can be between desire and reality–I find the closest thing to a core self. I might not always trust this version of “me” at the wheel, but some nights–some very long, very sleepless nights–it helps just to find that there’s someone there at all.

Writing Goals for the Rest of 2015: A Decent Year to Date!

Ideation exercises only work to a point; sometimes just announcing one’s goals gives a body enough of a rush to make accomplishing any of them feel less urgent.

Nonetheless, I’d like to make the most of the next few months, and I suspect it might be useful to take stock of what has and hasn’t worked for me in the year to date. One of my greatest struggles, as a PhD candidate also trying to make time for personal writing and A Life, is figuring out how much time and energy I can safely commit to each item on that list (and all the sub-items therein). More often than not this year, I’ve felt that I’m “doing it wrong”, but for the life of me I can’t figure out what “doing it right” looks like. On the positive side, though:

1) I sold three stories and one review this year. Not too shabby! I deeply appreciate Analog, Daily Science Fiction, GigaNotoSaurus, and Strange Horizons for their investment in me.

2) I’m on track for finishing a full dissertation draft by the end of the year, which would keep me on track for defending in 2016.

3) I had great success at two academic conferences this past year, and look forward to submitting two articles by year’s end on the back of them, and my chapters to date.

4) I joined SFWA! I could have joined sooner, except that being a PhD candidate meant juggling quite a few professional organization fees just to be considered for conferences, so this year was the first year that I could properly dedicate part of my income to the SF&F world at large. And what a treat it’s been, to get the newsletter and follow the forum! (Oh! And vote!)

5) Mystifyingly, I’ve also been running an SF&F writers’ group in my region for almost a year now. And you can ask anyone: I tend to hate writing groups! But this one has been a boon to me in creating community, and keeping me producing stories regularly after last year’s tremendous sadnesses and lulls. It’s also been a thrill to see other writers take their first, brave steps into the world of submitting fiction–a daunting but necessary part of the process! I’m very proud of how far our little gang has come, and can’t wait to see what its members produce next.

6) Pursuant to 5), I’ve written a lot this year:

a) I pretty much finished a short-story collection of the “literary/mundane/general fiction” persuasion, and dutifully started submitting stories in that vein again (since I know you need some sales in that department before it’s even worth pitching a full collection anywhere).

b) I also submitted my longest SF piece to date, a 33,000-word near-future political space thriller. (No idea what to do with it if/when rejects it, because Tor‘s the only market for works that size, but that’s a problem for Future Me!)

c) I finished and sent off another 40,000 words (give or take) of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, including two novelettes. A lot of second- and third-round considerations, too, which is great! That kind of response definitely lets me know that my writing is getting stronger, and that what I need to work on is simply keeping up with what’s cutting edge in the field.

d) Did I mention that my first dissertation draft is three-quarters-finished as I enter my fourth PhD year? There’ll be plenty to work on once it’s all written, but the research components have been the most intense, by far, so I can’t wait to have the full lay of the land when making those revisions!

7) I saw my work anthologized twice this year, with a third print publication on its way. I even witnessed Clarkesworld: Year Seven sell at the bookstore where I work–to strangers! without self-promotion!–and I’ll be reading from Wilde Stories 2015 at a local writers’ event in November.

All in all, then, it’s been a fairly productive year to date. However, I’ve had my share of setbacks, too, including that:

1) I had to give up on a novel project that was dear to me for years. Haven’t found a replacement for it yet, but if the number of novellas/novelettes I’ve been working on is any indication, I’m champing at the bit for a larger project. I keep waiting for one of my novella projects to metastasize, but it hasn’t happened yet!

2) I really wanted those academic articles submission-ready in July, so I’m two months behind on them, and this last quarter of the dissertation has taken its toll on me, too. One of the hardest parts of the PhD programme is the isolation when it comes to deadlines; you’re only failing yourself in the short term, and it can be difficult to let go of those disappointments.

3) My best year for publishing was 2013, before a difficult mental health crisis that pretty much engulfed 2014. I’ve been harbouring hopes of surpassing 2013’s sale record of four short stories, but I’m running out of time. I would sorely like to repay the investment past editors have had in me, by continuing to grow and improve in noticeable ways, but in the immortal words of The Smiths, “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby.”

4) Although I joined SFWA this year, I’m painfully aware that I haven’t done nearly enough to engage more with the community at large. I keep promising myself that I’ll do more to promote the writing I love, and get to know other professional writers better, and support the organization more diversely, but PhD professionalization has necessarily come first this year (in terms of time and investment of money in travel). I’m hoping I can strike a better balance in the year to come.

5) I received a great deal of positive encouragement from editors this year, but failed to follow through on much of it. I still need to give F&SF another try, after the glowing rejection I received for my last submission; and I need to keep trying to write something worthy of Asimov’s. I’d also love to work with Clarkesworld and Lightspeed again–two publications with editors who invested in my writing four times (including a non-fiction piece) and twice respectively. This requires more attention to where SF&F is going, and more aggressive literary growth on a personal level.

So! Where this leaves me for the next few months is pretty self-evident. By the end of the year, I can certainly control whether:

A) My dissertation is fully drafted.

B) My two academic articles are submitted.

C) I’ve applied to all relevant conferences in my field.

D) I’ve made a greater effort to promote the writing I love, and to champion my writing communities in general.

E) I’ve completed stories that are more attentive to the state of SF&F and the current thrust of its major publications. And,

F) I’ve cultivated viable ideas for a proper novel project to start 2016 off right.

Out of my direct control is, of course, the following:

a) Whether I get two more short stories accepted by year’s end, thus surpassing 2013’s standing record.

b) Whether I earn the investment of editors I admire and hope to work with in the future (irrespective of whether I’ve worked with them before).

c) Whether I find myself in a reasonable position to submit the collection of “literary fiction” short stories currently on stand-by.

But when I outline my aspirations as I have above, I realize I’m working with a pretty fortunate divide. The only thing I’ve excluded from both lists is my ability to handle any upsets on the side of “Things I Can Control”, because I still haven’t figured out how to cope with disappointments of that sort without resorting to energy-inefficient feelings of frustration and self-castigation. How I respond to failure should be in my control, too, but the fact that it isn’t yet just starts its own self-defeating mental spiral.

Eh. You win some, you lose some. But hey! There’s always next year to get my work/work/life balance “right”, whatever the heck that means. For now, I’m going to work on the above, consider myself incredibly lucky for the year I’ve had to date, and wish anyone reading this all the best in rounding out their own years with personal achievements abounding.

Happy writing, and best wishes to you all!